Thursday, August 07, 2008

More on Castles


Just as tower construction was a response to the perceived vulnerabilities of curtain walls, as time passed problems were experienced with defending towers.

Early, simple towers defences were basically crenellations that garnished their tops and arrow slots that pierced their sides. These allowed the archers who were the main troop type of the castle garrison to shoot out at an attacker and to sweep the face of the wall of those who pressed in too closely.

These simple wall-head defences did not however allow the defenders to prevent an enemy from attacking the base of the tower.

The eventual response was to build projecting defences that would allow fire to be directed down the towers’ faces. Called, machicolation, they were basically a gallery that stood on corbels projecting over the top of the wall. In their earliest form, they may have been of wood as at the Cave of Sueth (a remarkable “castle-in-a-cliff” reminiscent of ancient Petra in Jordan), but later were of stone. The most common form I have encountered is the so-called “box-machicolation” which pretty much was a stone box positioned over a vulnerable feature like a door for it’s defence. Just as often, they would also have an arrow loop in the front face.

A variation on this theme was the slot machicolation which cut an arrow-loop at a downward-sloping angle in the wall so that arrow-fire could be depressed to cover areas closer to the foot of the wall or tower.

Building a castle on an isolated spur or ridge was an early practise in fortification, seemingly imported from France with the original Crusaders. This may be seen today at Saone, about 30 km from Lattakieh in Syria where the well-preserved castle stands today. It’s most remarkable feature is the rock-cut fosse or ditch dug out by Moslem prisoners who left behind a remarkable 23 metre high spur of living rock that in it’s day supported a bridge over the ditch. As neat a description as any I have read runs like this:

“Lawrence of Arabia called it "the most sensational thing in castle-building I have seen". The morning mist was rolling up from the dramatic ridge on which the ruins stand, in the midst of precipitous ravines. In the distance you can see the Mediterranean. Everything here was built "big, solid and magnificent", with a key feature being the extraordinary 28m high rock monolith, which once supported a drawbridge. The monolith stands in a formidable 156m long ravine cut from the living rock, 28m deep and 14m to 20m wide, dating mainly from Byzantine times. We were taken around by a man born within the walls of the castle, when it was still possible for ordinary folk to live there. One feature he showed us: a secret spiral stairway that runs from the roof of the keep, down through the giant central pillar in floor after floor, and then through the living rock of the mountain to the river, far below. The idea, apparently, was to take besiegers from behind.”

Next time: Gates...


Heinz-Ulrich von Boffke said...

Morning Greg,

This is fascinating stuff! I'm looking forward to the material on gates next.

Best Regards,


A J said...

I agree, it's fascinating. Lattakieh sounds like a wonderful place to visit, if only to see that remarkable spiral staircase.